In 1901 Theodore Roosevelt became the 26th President of the United States, and ultimately one of its greatest conservationists. He later said, "I would not have been president had it not been for my experience in North Dakota."
Those experiences began in 1883, when Roosevelt arrived in the Dakota Badlands to hunt bison. Before he left, he purchased the primary interest in the Chimney Butte Ranch (known locally as the Maltese Cross Ranch). Roosevelt thrived on the vigorous outdoor lifestyle, actively participating in the life of a working cowboy. He would write three books about his experiences, which would deepen and broaden his career-defining conservation ethic.
Chimney Butte Ranch
Located seven miles south of Medora, the Chimney Butte Ranch boasted a stockade-style shack when Roosevelt invested $14,000 for cattle and a brand. Ranches were commonly known by their brand, and Chimney Butte used an eight-pointed Maltese Cross.
At Roosevelt's request, ranch managers Sylvane Ferris and Bill Merrifield built a one and one-half story cabin complete with a shingled roof and root cellar. Constructed of durable ponderosa pine logs, the cabin was larger than most frontier homes, with wooden floors and three separate rooms (kitchen, living room and Roosevelt's bedroom). The steeply pitched roof, an oddity on the northern plains, created an upstairs sleeping loft for the ranch hands.
History of the Cabin
What became known as the Maltese Cross Cabin was only a temporary home for Roosevelt. He would split his time between Dakota and New York for the next several years. After returning to Dakota in 1884, he established a second ranch he named the Elkhorn. By 1887, Roosevelt began to sell his interests in the cattle industry. By 1900 the Maltese Cross Cabin was claimed by other residents.
During Roosevelt's presidency, the cabin was acquired for the World's Fair, hosted in St. Louis, MO. The cabin traveled from Missouri to Portland, OR for the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. It would spend time in Fargo, ND before settling on the grounds of the state capital in Bismarck, ND.
The Daughters of the American Revolution eventually took over the care of the cabin, and acquired many of the items you can see today. In 1959, twelve years after the park was established, the Maltese Cross Cabin came to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Restored to its original state, you can walk in Roosevelt's footsteps by touring the cabin behind the South Unit Visitor Center.
The logs of the Maltese Cross Cabin are the original ponderosa pine used in 1883. The original roof had been removed by 1900, and the ceiling and pitched-style roof were restored when the cabin was transferred to the park. It is thought the window frames and front door are original, although the latter shows evidence of damage and repair. Graffiti adorns much of the door and parts of the exterior, acquired during its many travels across the country. Considering the cabin's use and history, it is remarkable the building has been preserved.
Inside the cabin sits a replica of the small wooden writing desk in the main room once sat at Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch. The replica closely matches the original, which is part of the park's museum collection. Roosevelt considered the Elkhorn, built during the winter of 1884-1885, his home ranch. Although he never accomplished as much writing as he hoped while in the badlands, he wrote several of his books on this desk (including his biography of Senator Thomas Hart Benton).
A trunk in the bedroom is made of wicker and duck skin, emblazoned with the letters "T.R.". This light-weight trunk is the one Roosevelt used on his travels between New York and Dakota. It was said that Mary Sewall, wife of Roosevelt's ranch manager Bill Sewall, had to straighten up the trunk at least once a week while he stayed at the Elkhorn.
The majority of the items in the cabin are antique period furnishings and were not owned by Roosevelt. Some, like the white hutch and simple rocking chair in the main room, are thought to have been owned or used by Roosevelt. A voracious reader, Roosevelt always kept a library (even while traveling). A rocking chair was one of his favorite pieces of furniture; Roosevelt would often rock himself across the room during lively discussions.
For authenticity, a detailed furnishing plan was researched for restoring the cabin. Household items represent the frontier life of early ranching operations.
Significance of the Cabin
Theodore Roosevelt came west to hunt bison. His two week hunting trip included many long conversations with local ranchers. Enamored with a lifestyle he knew more from second-hand than direct experience, he invested in his own ranch. He little expected the significance this place would hold for him and the nation.
After losing first his mother and then his wife on a single day in February 1884, Dakota became a place where Roosevelt could heal and move forward with his life. His days were spent riding alone through the wilderness, a spiritual storyline as old as human history. He would exhaust his body physically, riding, hunting, roping and ranching. He would write three books about his experiences in the west. In time, Roosevelt returned to society, resumed his public service career, and established a family.
While Roosevelt ranched in Dakota, he saw widespread land use transform into misuse and abuse of natural resources. He established a regional stockmen's association and helped form the Boone and Crockett Club, one of the first fair-hunting organizations. A stalwart proponent of American resources and the bounty they provided, he feared that unregulated use would deplete those resources forever.
As Governor of New York and President of the United States, Roosevelt made conservation a primary focus. Under his presidency (1901 - 1909), nearly 230 million acres were protected in the form of national forests, parks, monuments and reserves. This conservation legacy established a precedent for the 1900s and beyond. Today there are thousands of protected lands throughout the country.
The National Park Service was created in 1916, three years before Roosevelt's death. The agency took over management of many of the areas set aside by the former president. Theodore Roosevelt National Park was created to honor the legacy he left behind. It is one of the many protected areas established in the first 100 years of the National Park Service. As we look forward to the next 100, we remember the example set by men like Theodore Roosevelt, and the simple places like the Maltese Cross Cabin which helped inspire them.
Take a Virtual Tour
Designed for elementary and middle school students and teachers, our park-produced video, "Finding Roosevelt," is fun for all ages! See inside of the Maltese Cross Cabin and learn about Theodore Roosevelt's time in the Badlands through this 15-minute film.
Last updated: June 13, 2018